I’m writing this note to wish my mom a happy Mother’s Day and to thank her and marvel at her indomitable spirit, faith, fortitude and wanderlust. Traits that thankfully seem to have been passed on to me.
It is Mother’s Day morning. My wife, Ellen, and I are at a roadside cafe in Dong Ha, Vietnam. A sweaty, small city 10 miles inland of the South China Sea with a very busy north-south thoroughfare towards Hue and DaNang. Even on a Sunday morning, semi-trucks, buses and passenger vehicles of all kinds are rolling past, blaring their horns to warn through the endless stream of motor scooters that swarm everywhere in Vietnam.
This is the first town south of the DMZ (demilitarized zone); the 17th parallel area that served as the dividing line between the former North and South Vietnam. The US military had many important bases here and tens of thousands of troops during the ‘American war’, as they call it here. During our brief stopover, we’ve seen some of the places where young men on both sides fought and died and left scars on families and nations.
Of course, mom knows this place. She recently passed through twice on the train. And she likely has been right here at some point in her decades of world-wide travel. Before my father’s death, the two of them took dozens of months-long overseas journeys; Southeast Asia, India, North Africa, Europe, the Middle East, South America. They would leave Cleveland, Ohio (often for winter) and spend weeks exploring both well-traveled and remote places all around the globe – usually on a motorcycle. Naturally, I was working while they were on these escapades. But for years, I desired and dreamed and planned to do the same kind of long-term meandering. And now, Ellen and I do — as early retired vagabonds.
Amazingly, my dear widowed mother, Diane Kortan, is still at it, too. After caring for my stroke-disabled father for four years until his passing, she restarted her global wandering. I won’t say how old she is – but I am 55. And mom was NOT a teenage mother. So to see her venturing off to hike in China, Central Asia (Uzbekistan/Tajikistan), or South America is awe inspiring.
Mom is back home now, helping raise school-aged grandchildren, but in late March she interrupted her solo trekking in Southeast China to meet us in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Ellen and I had spent the previous 5 months hopscotching around Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia. The three of us shared Airbnb accommodations and explorations for several weeks in Saigon, Dalat, the Mekong delta, and Nha Trang before seeing mom off by train back to Shanghai for her flight home.
Mom was up early each day. She would attend daybreak Catholic mass at every opportunity – walking blocks in the dark to celebrate the Eucharist with what she described as surprisingly large and enthusiastic congregations. Ellen and I slept. On Sundays, I did start what I hope can be a new tradition when possible; accompanying mom to mass and brunch afterward.
We all took buses and boat rides, went to markets and temples, ate strange street food and did near-fine dining in our raggedy clothes. Together we struggled with menus and maps – and always with the Vietnamese language. I will never forget seeing her disappear down into one of the tiny Cu Chi tunnels used by the Viet Cong in wartime, now a tourist attraction. My favorite memory however, is hearing her squeal like a school girl as we rode a speedy, twisting, roller-coaster type ride at a Dalat waterfall park — holding her tight as we careened down the steep steel track.
The experience was priceless. The photos are forever. It was the most time we had spent together since I lived at home as a juvenile. A subsequent period of estrangement evolved into 20-some years of standard get-togethers for holidays and family birthdays. Those gatherings were fun and memorable but far different than literally living with a parent again and enjoying a new and foreign culture together. Both Ellen and myself felt blessed and thrilled — and we remain so impressed with mom’s energy and adaptability and patient, loving, accepting attitude towards us and everyone we met.
So happy Mother’s Day, mom. Thank you for the years of travel demonstrations. You’re incredible! We love you. You have – and can still – ‘out travel’ us. And your adventures have inspired us to pursue this dream-like nomadic lifestyle. We know you are planning to continue to experience more of the earth and this life – as are we. And we sincerely hope we can cross our paths again and spend more time together somewhere new.